Fresh Ideas: Finding refuge
Siem Reap, Cambodia, January 19. Tonight I watched a dozen talented artists paint, play music, dance, and do amazing circus routines as they told the story of their country’s descent into genocide and its ongoing recovery from those horrors.
These young performers are the grandchildren of the Khmer Rouge and its victims, best known to Americans as the perpetrators of the killing fields. They come from difficult backgrounds and attend a performing arts school that gives them skills, but even more important, a way to work through their inevitable grief and anger, developing a bond with each other and a confidence in their own abilities that will serve them their entire lives.
I arrived in Cambodia a week ago, as a tourist on the first leg of a month-long trip. I had been feeling both relieved and sad to be away from the U.S. during such a transformative time, but also happy to re-visit this beautiful Southeast Asia country. It felt good to have a break from the intensity of the scene at home. Although WiFi is ubiquitous, it’s easy to avoid staying current with the news. Visiting the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, eating delicious Khmer curries and mango shakes, riding tuk-tuks through the countryside, getting a massage — I could feel I was taking refuge in an exotic country where I had no responsibilities and could just play.
But that fantasy bubble is easily burst if you’re tuned into what is around you. Outside many of the temples are small orchestras of amputees who lost their limbs to the land mines dropped by the U.S. during the Vietnam War and which still pose a danger. There’s a war museum where people are encouraged to hold weapons and feel what it’s like. People everywhere are well aware of the change in U.S. leadership, and some initiate conversation about it, having questions and opinions. Some say our president-elect is an angry man; some of them fear an outbreak of World War III. Others express confidence in Americans who have so many years of experience with democracy.
So where is there refuge, a place of peace and safety, when we can’t escape the consequences of past injustices nor the worries of a future to come? Taking refuge often means to go into a protected space, to turn our backs on the world. Although I can do that when on an occasional retreat, that’s not how I want to live in the world.
For me refuge means stopping to breathe and listen to the beauty of the music, not turning away from the amputated limbs. It means attending a performance where pain is expressed and then transformed through art, connection and courage. There’s refuge in noticing people’s good hearts, exchanging everyday kindnesses. Refuge is created when we work together with open-heartedness for the benefit of all. Refuge is no longer a way to hide from the difficulties of the world but to join together in solidarity and love, through art, engagement and action.
Kathy Schwerin is a mostly-retired psychotherapist; she blogs at amindfulbreath.com.